The tax dollars we spend on higher ed ought to have one purpose and one purpose alone: to educate students. So why do we let these dollars mint mega millionaires?
By Sam Pizzigati
Most students who attend college today are getting an education. But more and more are not getting the education they expected. They’re getting fleeced — by for-profit colleges that are making millions for their top execs and saddling ill-prepared students with many thousands of dollars in crushing debt.
These for-profit schools have become the hottest phenomenon in American higher education. Yet two decades ago they barely existed. In 1990, less than 1 percent of U.S. college students attended a for-profit school. Today for-profits enroll nearly 10 percent of the nation’s college students.
What’s driving this enrollment explosion? Your tax dollars. For-profit colleges enroll a modest tenth of the nation’s college students. But they collect — from the federal government — nearly a quarter of the nation’s college student aid dollars, over $21 billion in all.
Those billions have translated into multi-million paychecks for the power suits who run the for-profit educational industry. Over the last three years, the top five execs at three industry giants — the ITT Technical Institute, Corinthian Colleges, and the Apollo Group — took home  a combined $130 million.
These execs, charges  financial analyst Steven Eisman, are operating “marketing machines masquerading as universities.” Most all of these “marketing machines” follow the same basic three-step formula.
First, enroll anybody with a pulse. Some for-profits, notes Eisman, even have recruiters “trolling casinos and homeless shelters.”
Second, charge humungous tuitions. Kaplan University Online, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa revealed  earlier this month, charges $33,390 for an associate degree in business administration. At Northern Virginia Community College, a public institution, that same degree can be earned for $8,500.
Third, push your enrollees to sign up for federal loans you know they’ll never be able to pay back. No big deal. The for-profits get the loan dollars up-front. Only students — and taxpayers — take any hit when students default.
And students at for-profit colleges certainly do default. Over recent years, notes Iowa’s Harkin, they’ve collected 23 percent of federal student loans and grants and suffered “a staggering 44 percent of defaults.”
For-profit higher ed companies, at the same time, have become some of the world’s most lucrative businesses, with profit margins that run 40 percent, over four times the going profit rate at defense contractors and other firms that get the bulk of their revenue from taxpayer dollars.
If current trends continue, says financial analyst Steven Eisman from FrontPoint Partners, we’ll be “on the cusp of a new social disaster.” For-profit students will owe, he estimates, “$330 billion on defaulted loans over the next 10 years.”
The U.S. Department of Education has proposed new regulations that aim to end these current trends. The new rules would, among other changes, deny federal student aid to for-profits that “graduate” large numbers of students who can’t earn enough money to repay their debts. The new rules would also penalize for-profit school officials who deceive students into enrolling.
But the for-profit industry has mobilized a massive push to water down the new rules. The for-profits, the New York Times reported  last week, have been twisting student arms to send in protest letters.
This phony “grassroots” pushback against the Education Department’s proposed reforms may or may not pay off for the for-profits. But even if the bulk of the new reforms go into effect, the huge rewards that for-profit college execs have been collecting give them a continuing — and maybe irresistible — incentive to seek new loopholes and game the system.
So why not go after those rewards directly — by simply denying all federal student loans to any institution of higher education that compensates its top executives at, say, over 25 times the pay of its lowest-paid workers? For-profit higher ed execs are currently averaging hundreds of time their worker pay.
Federal law already denies financial aid dollars to any educational institution that discriminates by race or gender. As a society, we’ve decided that we don’t want our tax dollars subsidizing racial or gender inequality. Why should we let our tax dollars subsidize economic inequality?
Our tax dollars, in higher education, are doing just that. Andrew Clark, the CEO of the higher ed for-profit that operates the University of the Rockies, last year took home $20.5 million. The top 10 execs in higher ed for-profits, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes , averaged just under $7 million.
The chase after windfalls like these is distorting — and degrading — higher education. We need to end the chasing.
Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue  or sign up  to receive Too Much in your email inbox.